The collapse of communism in the USSR in 1991 and the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States a decade later offered the Pentagon basing possibilities impossible even to conceive of during the Cold War. The chief beneficiaries were Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which were catapulted from being the "back of beyond" of the "Evil Empire" to potential front-line states in Washington’s and NATO’s attempt to develop a new military footprint in former Soviet republics. Since relations between Uzbekistan and the United States soured after the events in Andijan in May 2005, Kyrgyzstan has emerged as Washington’s sole front-line state for confronting terrorism in Afghanistan. The Manas airbase is critical to U.S. counter-terrorism strategy in Central and South Asia. A December 6 "incident" at Manas—when a U.S. serviceman fatally shot a Kyrgyz civilian at a truck checkpoint at the base—now threatens Washington’s sole remaining military facility in the former Soviet Union, with no immediate resolution in sight.
Although U.S. interest in Central Asia predates the war on terrorism, it has been intensified by Washington’s renewed counter-terrorism strategy. Impoverished, agrarian Kyrgyzstan has suddenly found itself wooed by the Russian Federation, the United States and China, which shares the Kyrgyz border with its restive Xinjiang province. Russia and the United States have airbases in Kyrgyzstan, while China has been eyeing the republic’s rich natural resources. A new "Great Game" is indeed afoot. The crown jewels in this game are two military airbases in Kyrgyzstan—the U.S. facility at Manas established in December 2001 and, less than 30 miles away, Russia’s facility at Kant that was leased only a year later in 2002.
Early Interest in Manas
The burgeoning U.S. interest in the tiny republic dates from the end of communism and was well advanced before the September 11 attacks. Beginning in 1995, the United States began to participate in the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) training exercises with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the first exercise being August 1995’s Cooperative Nugget exercise at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Cooperative Nugget exercises were also held in 1997 and in March and May of 2000. Both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan participated in Cooperative Nugget exercises in Germany and Colorado.
In December of 1995, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan formed the Central Asian Battalion, or Centrazbat, creating a regional peacekeeping unit. Troops from the United States, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Georgia, Russia, Turkey and Uzbekistan participated in the first set of Centrazbat exercises held in September 1997 in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Five hundred U.S. 82nd Airborne Division members took part in the exercises, which began with a parachute drop from U.S. Air Force C-17 transport aircraft. Additional Centrazbat exercises were held in 1998 and 2000.
Another NATO PfP program, involving Central Asia, was Cooperative Osprey, the first exercise of which was held in North Carolina in August 1996, where U.S., Dutch and Canadian troops joined with 16 PfP countries, including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, in training exercises. Then, in March 2001 in Nova Scotia, six NATO members, one being the United States, joined 13 PfP countries, including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, in Cooperative Osprey training exercises. The same month, 12 U.S. servicemen participated in Operation Balance Night to train 150 Kyrgyz servicemen to resist armed incursions of Islamic fundamentalists from neighboring countries under bilateral agreements signed between Kyrgyzstan and U.S. CENTCOM in June 2000 (UPI Hears, March 3, 2001).
Manas Chosen for Operations in Afghanistan
The September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States bumped the Department of Defense’s interest in Central Asia into high gear. On December 16, 2001, the U.S. Air Force in Europe sent the 86th Contingency Response Group from Ramstein Air Base in Germany to "kick in the door" of a new base. This unit set up security and air traffic control and began negotiating with airport and government officials on the base’s footprint (Airman, February 2005). Manas was chosen for its 14,000-foot runway, which was originally built to handle Soviet bombers but could handle U.S. C-5 Galaxy cargo planes and 747s in their 1,000-mile flight to Afghanistan. Of Kyrgyzstan’s 52 airports, Manas was the only one with a lengthy runway and the only one capable of supporting international flights. An adjacent 32-acre field was designated as the site of a tent city for U.S. personnel.
In February 2002, U.S. troops quietly began joint military exercises in Kyrgyzstan. This was the first prolonged stay of U.S. forces who trained Kyrgyz Special Forces border guards to cope with insurgents, notably those of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which had in 1999 ensconced themselves in southern Kyrgyzstan. Manas quickly proved to be a useful base for Afghan operations, as its 90-minute flying time to the war theater dwarfed the six to eight hours flight time from other potential launching areas, such as ships or U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia. Besides the U.S. forces involved in Operation Enduring Freedom, Manas hosted personnel from France, South Korea, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Australia and the Netherlands. Spanish, Dutch, Danish and Norwegian C-130s flew cargo missions; France contributed six Mirage 2000s and two C-135 re-fuelers; Australia sent two Boeing 707 refueling aircraft; and Spain offered HT-211 Super Puma rescue helicopters. Within about six months of September 11, the Pentagon established 13 bases in nine countries in and around Afghanistan. By October 2001, U.S. combat aircraft had flown over 900 sorties and logged more than 4,200 combat hours (Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center, July-August 2002).
Threats to the Airbase
While Kyrgyzstan’s civil society is relatively tranquil compared to Afghanistan’s in the wake of the Soviet-Afghan war, it is not immune to the terrorism roiling the region. In September 2003, three Kyrgyz citizens were convicted for trying to organize a terrorist attack on the airbase, while on July 8, 2004 militants attacked Manas. Kyrgyz National Security Service Chairman Kalyk Imankulov stated, "The National Security Service believes that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan might have been involved in attempts to commit terrorist attacks at the Ganci airbase at Manas International Airport near Bishkek" (Jane’s Intelligence Watch Report, July 9, 2004).
In addition to the threat of terrorism, Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution, which flared up in February 2005 and culminated in President Askar Akayev fleeing the country the following month, worried Washington that the new Kyrgyz government might abrogate basing rights in Manas. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Bishkek in early April 2005 to shore up Kyrgyz support for the continued U.S. presence at Manas. The situation only worsened, however, as events in neighboring Uzbekistan also affected the airbase. On May 13, 2005, Uzbek troops fired into a crowd of protesters in Andijan in the Ferghana Valley who were protesting the trial of local Islamic activists. While Tashkent maintained that 187 people, mostly "terrorist organizers," died during the Andijan unrest, human rights groups averred that the toll was far higher. Washington’s equivocal response to the incident led the Uzbek government on July 29 to inform Washington that it was abrogating the agreement permitting the U.S. military to use the Karshi-Khanabad airbase under terms of the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement, giving the Pentagon 180 days to end its activities there. A further irritant in U.S.-Uzbek relations was the issue of 450 refugees from Andijan who fled to Kyrgyzstan and were eventually airlifted to Romania. After the loss of Uzbekistan, Manas moved to the forefront of U.S. military efforts to maintain aerial operations over Afghanistan. The loss of Karshi-Khanabad was significant—just 60 miles from Afghanistan in Qashqadaryo Province near the border with Tajikistan, the base’s 416th Air Expeditionary Group averaged 200 passengers and 100 tons of cargo per day on C-130H missions, supporting Operation Enduring Freedom with scores of flights each month.
Given the half-decade of the U.S. presence at Manas, disputes have inevitably arisen between Kyrgyzstan and the United States about personnel, hardware and money. On September 5, Air Force Major Jill Metzger went missing from Manas before she was scheduled to return to the United States after shopping in a mall in Bishkek. Only three days later, she turned up. Metzger claimed that she had been kidnapped; the incident is still under investigation, but in the aftermath, U.S. military personnel at Manas were confined to the base (Stars and Stripes, September 27, 2006). In the interim, members of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing continued their re-supply efforts to Afghanistan and on September 17 unloaded 43,000 pounds of food, water and building supplies at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul.
On September 26, 2006, a collision between a Kyrgyz TU-154 passenger plane and an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker on the airfield at Manas International Airport further strained relations (Air Safety Week, October 9, 2006; Gazeta.ru, December 22, 2006). Kyrgyz Transport Minister Nurlan Sulaimanov said the incident was caused by darkness and the U.S. jet being parked in the wrong spot on an uneven runway, commenting that a government commission has concluded that the "blame for the incident at the Manas International Airport rests with the crew of the American plane" (Stars and Stripes, November 16, 2006). U.S. personnel at Manas continued to carry out their duties. In October and November, they exceeded Air Mobility Command’s standard of 95 percent for the Logistics Departure Reliability rate (Air Force Print News, October 30, 2006).
The Tulip Revolution also raised the rent for the Pentagon’s use of Manas. Under the December 4, 2001 basing agreement, Manas cost a little over $2 million a year. Bakiyev’s new administration sought to increase the amount to $100-200 million annually; presently, discussions continue on the topic (Kommersant, June 2, 2006). The Bush administration allegedly promised Kyryzstan $150 million immediately and $15 million annually afterwards, but the new agreement was never signed (Journal of Turkish Weekly, December 18, 2006). Whatever the final rent, Manas has proven useful far beyond situations in the Central Asia region; in July, C-17s based there were used to evacuate U.S. citizens from Lebanon, then under assault by Israel (Air Force Print News, July 26, 2006).
Despite what may happen in the long-term, it is clear that the United States will remain at Manas in the near future. In October, the base received 7,256,000 gallons of fuel. In November, the U.S. troop transit rate through Manas tripled (DefendAmerica.com, November 11, 2006). Also in November, troops began winterizing the base (UPI, November 27, 2006).
The shadowy "Great Game" continues in Central Asia, as on October 4 Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov met Kyrgyz Prime Minister Feliks Julov in Bishkek. Russia insists that, while U.S. forces use Manas for supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, their Kant facility is maintained under Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Kant is a bargain, costing the Russians only $4.5 million annually to support its 500 personnel there (RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service, October 5, 2006).
Nevertheless, new events have placed pressure on U.S. access to the base. On December 6, U.S. guards at Manas shot and killed Aleksandr Ivanov, an ethnic Russian Kyrgyz citizen at the airbase’s entry gate. The U.S. military shot Ivanov, who the Kyrgyz government insisted was behaving correctly, twice in the chest with a pistol. Ivanov worked for the Aircraft Petroleum Co. (AKI Press, December 7, 2006). The United States claims that the victim was armed with a knife and was behaving aggressively (Kommersant, December 7, 2006). The incident has roiled the top levels of the Kyrgyz government, with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev calling for U.S. military personnel to be stripped of their diplomatic immunity (Iamik.ru, December 22, 2006).
Washington should learn from its equivocal tactics in 2005 in Uzbekistan, and if it does not address what it regards as a minor incident in the December 6 death of Ivanov, insisting instead that under a 2001 agreement with Kyrgyzstan U.S. servicemen come under U.S. jurisdiction, it might well lose its last base in the former Soviet Union.